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Review: Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood 2016

Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights 2016 brings an IP-filled year that doesn’t quite live up to the prestige of the presented brands, but still brings some chilling scares.

 

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Halloween Horror Nights is a separately ticketed event that runs twenty-seven select nights between September 16, 2016 and November 5, 2016. This year features six all new mazes, the new year round The Walking Dead Attraction, four Purge themed scare zones, one show, and the iconic Terror Tram; this year presented by Eli Roth.

 

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The TExas Chainsaw Massacre: Blood Brothers

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It’s been five years since a group of unlucky teenagers had a fatal encounter with a chainsaw-wielding psychopath named Leatherface and his cannibal clan at an isolated farmhouse in South Texas. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, the farmhouse was never found, the murder weapon was never recovered and the demented killers were never brought to justice.

Emboldened by their ability to literally get away with murder, The Sawyer Family has decided the time is right to expand the family business! Now that ChopTop, Leatherface’s mentally unhinged brother, has returned from war, the Sawyers are ready to take the slaughter to an entirely new level and bring their cannibal cuisine to the masses!

This Texas Chainsaw Massacre maze takes place in a middle ground time period between the first and second films. Instead of recreating specific scenes from the iconic films, this maze imagines The Sawyer family in a variety of scenarios in familiar environments. The narrative takes you through their restaurant, into their slaughterhouse like home, and through some meat gathering activities. Having a familiarity with the characters is helpful, but guests unaware of specific scenes mostly won’t be at a disadvantage.

Some highly detailed sets leave an unsettling feeling as guests walk through rooms filled with decaying bodies and rotting animals. Smells are used to great effect both from the remains of victims in one particularly “stuffy” scene and in the musty and dirt filled caverns meant to evoke the underground lair of the franchise’s second film.

Two additional notes. There’s one scene that takes place through a filter of Chop Top’s psychedelically distorted mental state that doesn’t go far enough with the effect for it to really work. Also, I would have liked to see more in the underground section that reflected the whimsical location of the second film.

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There was a mixed bag of some incredible actors and some that looked like they were pulled into the wrong maze. The first scene started with a spot on Drayton Sawyer actor who perfectly embodied the personality and mannerisms of the character. Unfortunately, the Leatherface actor who came out to scare in the same scene looked to weigh a lanky 130 pounds and not at all fitting for the character he was playing.

The rest of the maze was the standard formula for a slasher villain house with Leatherface seemingly popping out in every single room. The pacing of scares just didn’t quite feel right.

One standout scene is a recreation of Grandpa’s attack attempts that fans of the franchise are sure to love.

 

The Walking Dead Attraction

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Enter the post-apocalyptic world of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Prepare to fight for survival in a fully immersive journey as you navigate through a world overrun by hungry walkers. Follow in the footsteps of the human survivors as you battle your way through nightmarish iconic landscapes that bring the most popular cable TV show in history to life!

The Walking Dead Attraction spans the first few seasons of the hit AMC show taking guests up through the assault on the survivors’ prison compound. While the main human characters of the show don’t make any appearances, some of the more memorable walkers appear and scenarios from the show play out for guests to see.

There’s a good flow moving through the hospital, into the woods, and finally through the prison that gives this maze a story arc that works even for non-fans of the show. The Walking Dead Attraction is the must see maze at this years event, even though it does run year-round.

By far this is the best looking maze at Halloween Horror Nights 2016. Of course it has the added benefit of also being the highest budget maze because of its year-round standing at the park. Numerous animatronics and special effects make this feel like as real of an environment as you’ll find in a haunted attraction.

The best faux fire effects I have seen are also on display with a burning cabin emitting heat onto the guest path. It’s a show moment you’ll want to just stand and stare at.ear-haunt-scares-1031

The walkers here really know how to make zombies work in a maze environment. Assisted by some excellent prosthetics and animatronic figures, The Walking Dead Attraction creates an all encompassing experience. Video screens, shadow projections, and semi-mechanical mannequins make the walker count feel enormous.

The live actors working among the mannequins are also able to blend in well with their fake counterparts making it difficult to know who is real and who is not. They don’t use this as an opportunity for statue scares, but instead try to mimic and manipulate the horde to make everything feel real.

Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield

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Picking up where the classic film ended, you’ll experience the shocking final confrontation between Dr. Loomis and Michael Myers in the Doyle house, only to realize that the real terror is just getting started! As Dr. Loomis well knows, “You can’t kill The Boogeyman.” Michael Myers is still out there… relentlessly pursuing his prey from the sleepy streets of Haddonfield to the labyrinth-like hallways of the Haddonfield Memorial Hospital.

You thought he was finished. But it was just the beginning. This night of nightmares isn’t over.

Following the storyline of Halloween 2, Hell Comes To Haddonfield picks up on all the major beats of the film and even imagines a brand new dream-like ending. Even as a fan of the film, the story felt disjointed and like a collection of loosely strung together “best of” moments rather than a cohesive adaptation. For those who haven’t seen the film, this maze might just feel like “Michael Myers in a Hospital.”

The sets here are believable, but the hospital scenes begin to feel repetitive alternating between hallways and square rooms. As I’ve said with some of the other mazes for Halloween Horror Nights 2016, the flow from scene to scene just feels off.

Some good effects are used to recreate a few memorable film scenes, but there aren’t any big standout moments.

Scenically, the biggest departure from what one would expect is an extended dream like journey through Michael’s own mind. While modest in design, it’s simplicity presented an alluring space to be in that left me wanting it to keep going. A slowed down and warped version of Mr. Sandman played in the background further making these rooms entrancing.

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Michael Myers’ looming presence is everywhere and the actors who play him have his mannerisms down. Any one of them could be straight from the silver screen. A few scenes with actors lip-syncing to dialogue fell flat on our walk-through. Despite syncing believably, their actions and facial expressions didn’t match the emotion of the words they were saying.

The Exorcist

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Inside the MacNeil house, a violent battle is raging. A battle between the forces of light and all the powers of Hell! At stake is not only the soul of one troubled girl, but the soul of anyone who sets foot inside the house. Something beyond comprehension is happening to a twelve year old girl named Regan MacNeil. Some dreadful entity has invaded her body, transforming the innocent young girl into a horrid creature that is unrecognizable to her own mother. A creature that has been possessed by a demon… possibly the devil himself.

The Exorcist maze adapts the extended director’s cut of the film. There’s a great emphasis placed on the demon entity that appears mainly in flashes throughout the film. I would venture to say that demon may even make more appearances in the maze than Regan does. For fans only familiar with the Theatrical version of the film, they may be confused by this character’s inclusion as it only shows up there once.

hhnh2016-exorcistThere are more black hallways in this maze than actual built scenes. Black hall disease has plagued Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood for the last several years, and mostly has been cured in 2016. Unfortunately the collective of black hallways all moved into The Exorcist to take up residence.

The maze starts out promising with a great reproduction of the iconic exterior of the MacNeil house as represented in the film’s poster. The first several scenes show rooms of the home in chaos before bringing guests into Regan’s bedroom where the majority of the film’s action takes place. The perplexing choice here is to separate each of these bedroom scenes with undressed spaces that usually hold a single actor playing the subliminally presented demon character from the film.

Long black hallways interspersed among well dressed sets break immersion. There’s no credible justification for their existence.

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The film’s iconic scenes are all here with custom made puppets and animatronics recreating the terror of the horror classic. Unfortunately, the strange and repetitive pacing of bedroom scene, black hall, bedroom scene, black hall, over and over again hurts the flow of the story and just makes the maze confusing. It prevents tension building from scene to scene.

There’s also odd choices with some scenes having mannequins for a character and then in the next scene that character is a fully interactive actor. Switching back and forth only serves to make the non-actor feel out of place.

American Horror Story

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Venture through three seasons of the FX series American Horror Story. Murder House, Freak Show, and Hotel. From a house that holds dark secrets, to a circus with performers whose pasts are darker than their oddities, to an old hotel whose residents hide their murderous tendencies behind veils of beauty and allure.

This maze is broken up into three discrete sections for each season of the show. Within these sections are some “best of” moments and other scenes that just play like walking through sets from the series. If you aren’t familiar with the series, expect to be lost as to who anyone is or why anything is happening.

hhnh2016-ahsFaithfully recreating the sets and feel of familiar spaces is what Universal Studios Hollywood is good at, and with American Horror Story they continue this trend. Using some clever building techniques to create warped walls and floors, this maze puts off an unsettling feeling just from walking through it.

The geography of the space can be confusing at times, and I found myself unsure of where I supposed to be for the majority of the Murder House section of the maze.

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On our visit to American Horror Story we seemed to get very bad timing in most scenes. Either we wouldn’t see an actor at all, or in some cases would be in a scene for a long time waiting for the line to move and see an actor only appear after a lengthy wait. I’m not sure if it’s an issue with the show moments being designed to be too long and not allow for quick resets, or if the performers themselves were just not scaring at the frequency they should have been. This was the only maze that we really noticed this issue in all night though.

Comparisons have to be made to this maze’s Florida counterpart at Universal Orlando. At HHN 26, the maze really felt like scenes coming straight out of the show were being brought to life. In Hollywood it felt more like a tour of show sets with an occasional jump scare. The strangest scene was the opening of Freak Show where Twisty’s van sat parked at the entrance to the Freak Show tent with all the characters out to essentially greet guests. Even Edward Mordrake was there just hanging out without an air of grandeur or mystery. Similar oddities played out in other scenes without any one moment leaving an impression on me—even as a fan of the show who came out of the Orlando version of the maze grinning from ear to ear.

 

Freddy Vs. Jason

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Prepare to be thrust into the middle of an epic battle between Freddy Krueger, from A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Jason Voorhees, from Friday the 13th. It’s a battle that rages through the twisted landscape of nightmares from the haunted shores of Camp Crystal Lake to the house at 1428 Elm Street.

Your experience culminates in a final showdown amongst the burned out ruins of an abandoned boiler factory, where Freddy’s evil legacy first began. In this fight to the death, someone must win and someone must lose! Will you make it to the end to find out?

I’ve seen the film, but felt quite lost as to what was happening through the majority of the maze. The basic concept of Freddy summoning Jason to kill for him by deceiving him through a dream felt muddled and I don’t think an un-initiated guest will understand the storyline. Beyond this, flowing from scene to scene was disjointed and didn’t seem to grow to a conclusion.

This cramped maze succeeded in some areas feeling like the boiler rooms or camp bunks of Camp Crystal Lake, but in other places like the facade of 1428 Elm Street, the small scale prohibited the space from feeling believable. There’s also a couple of oddly placed black hallways lit by spinning colored light that are meant to be transitional areas, but instead are missed opportunities for additional scenes.

One scene makes good use of backlit scrims to add to the dreamlike nature of Freddy’s world.

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Slasher characters do slasher scares. The problem with having so many slasher icons in a single event is scare tactics in maze after maze begin to feel the same. There are some unique Freddy Dream World scares that bring variety to the maze, but most others feel repetitive.

The adoption of a technique used in the Alien Vs. Predator maze of the previous two years to elevate actors in close proximity to guests for “battle” scenes does give the impression of larger than life characters. Although it fits for Jason, it makes Freddy seem a bit too large. It’s also used several times throughout the maze, so by the third time the novelty has worn off.

Krampus

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Everyone knows the story of Santa Claus and how he brings toys to good little girls and boys on Christmas Eve. But what is less well known is what happens to the naughty children who don’t make Santa’s list. Who visits them on Christmas Eve and what terrible “gifts” does he bring them? You’re about to find out!

Based on the hit Universal film, the Krampus maze takes place during the height of the elves’ attack on the Engel family home. The big moments of the Gingerbread Men, attack attic, and moving snow men are all here, although presented in sometimes less compelling ways than the maze’s Orlando counterpart.

To again bring up a comparison to HHN 26 in Orlando, that maze moved through multiple real scale feeling homes in a way that felt like naturally traveling through a destroyed neighborhood. In Hollywood, the homes feel unnaturally large with pathways one would never find in reality. Outdoor sections look unbelievable, and it just isn’t possible to loose oneself in this story world.

Costumes, masks, and makeup mostly look fantastic here, with the only exception being some of the attic creatures look slightly too large. I imagine this is a concession made to allow the puppeteering of them to work better.

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Unlike in the film, Krampus has been relegated to a slasher movie villain role popping out of every wall, window, and doorway to attack guests. He’s not the lingering presence, but a nearby and too-oft seen inevitability. The repetition of his appearance diminishes any opportunity to build up a sense of dread. There’s a bit of calm in the first scene with the destroyed living room and a shadowy hand moving over the window. But Krampus quickly appears in the second scene and continues to appear in nearly every scene following it. The maze does have a frenetic and out of control feel to it though.

The attic scene is the standout moment in the maze with a great ping ponging back and forth between a variety of scares and tactics. This is the scene to see the house for.

At Halloween Horror Nights 26 in Orlando, the maze created a great sense of pace and anticipation with showing Krampus off in the distance on a rooftop, only as a passing sound, or as a fake out version of the real creature before finally showing the real up-close monster in a finale moment. This pacing of scares is what is missing in Hollywood’s version.

Eli Roth Presents: Terror Tram

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Eli Roth Presents Terror Tram will expose guests to the fabled legacy of serial killer clown “Hollywood Harry,” the story of a former jovial celebrity clown turn depraved murderer, and the minefield of carnage he left behind. The all-new Terror Tram experience follows the sordid tale of former Los Angeles resident Harold Kappowitz whose alter ego “Koodles the Clown” went from cheerful circus performer, to the lovable star of his own children’s network television show before he was overcome by his genuine killer instincts.

This year’s Terror Tram brings an intriguing story filled with mystery and just enough sprinkles of truth to make guests question whether or not Hollywood Harry might just roam the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood. Starting with an excellent docu-style pre-show video on the ride down to the backlot and continuing with environmental storytelling through the walkthrough, guests will leave unsettled by this troupe of roaming clowns bent on revenge.

Pop-up sets throughout the backlot show the clown’s dark and murderous ways through whimsical methods of torture and dismemberment. To help control flow, multiple paths appear at three or four stops along the way essentially allowing guests to come back a second time and experience new scenes they missed previously.

Most notably, the long slog up the hill has been removed from the path. This makes the walkthrough shorter, but it’s a welcomed change and allows for much more enjoyable experience.

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This is the best Terror Tram I’ve personally seen at Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood. It all begins with a great entry moment upon exiting the tram and doesn’t let up through the duration of the walkthrough. There’s a great variety of roaming actors and setup scenes that leave guests unsure of where the next scare will come from.

With the largest cast of the event, Terror Tram feels massive and that commitment of resources is well worth it for Universal.

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For 2016, Universal Studios Hollywood took a new approach to scare zones. Three areas of the park—the entry plaza, a covered section of the long path to New York Streets, and the entry way to the New York Streets—have The Purge actors scattered around them. One mega-scarezone called The Purge: Gauntlet of Fear takes over a large section of the upper lot and is a linear path; almost a wide-open outdoor maze.

The upper lot and New York streets section work decently well with the stilt walkers in the upper lot doing a fantastic job with incredibly high energy scares. Just standing watching the stilt performers interact with the ground performers was a joy.

The tunnel leading to the New York Streets backlot was an awkward area filled with fast-paced electronic music, club lighting, and actors with shaker cans. Very strange choices here.

The Purge: Gauntlet of Fear

It’s Purge night and you must traverse the city streets looking for safety.

This lengthy linear scare zone is a new concept for Halloween Horror Nights on the upper lot. It’s a mixture of the linear path model first used in the New York Streets backlot several years ago and the Terror Tram’s vignette-like structure.

While I miss having more traditional and varied scare zones in the upper lot, the Gauntlet of Fear is a cool way to almost get an additional maze out of the event. Using big, fully produced sets and props, this goes beyond the typical scope of a scare zone and is the length of at least three traditional zones.

The actors here do a great job embodying the spirit of the New Founding Fathers and those playing specific roles from the film will be instantly recognizable to fans. This is a slow down and enjoy the experience area, which is a nice change of pace for a layout reminiscent of what one could find in a maze.

Jabbawockeez

Combining gravity-defying choreography, stunning special effects, heavy-hitting music and their unique brand of humor, get ready for another adrenaline-raising experience.

The Jabbawockeez have created a new show exclusive to Halloween Horror Nights building off their successful Las Vegas residency. We didn’t attend the show, but it appeared to be drawing large, excited crowds all night long.

The Elephant in the room when talking about USH’s Halloween Horror Nights is the massive crowds the event receives. Without purchasing a Front of the Line pass, guests will be hard pressed to complete every maze without taking advantage of the event’s early entry offering. Even so, on the night we attended, after 7:00pm the lowest line maze had a 45-minute wait with the longest wait already reaching 1 hour and a half. These lines only got longer as the park eventually hit its capacity number. Nearly every night of the event will sell out, meaning there’s not a slow night where guests looking to save on purchasing a Front of the Line pass will be able to have an easier time accessing mazes.

One of the factors contributing to the long lines was that operations staff were sometimes heavily pulsing entry into mazes. Sometimes waiting up to a minute in between letting groups in. While I’m a fan of pulsing to an extent, in this case it doesn’t make the guest experience measurably better and instead causes more harm by dramatically increasing wait times. Also, inevitably by room number two or three guests have already caught up to the next party.

The main thing missing from this year’s HHN is a lack of a cohesive thread tying the event together. Other than the linked The Purge scare zones in the upper lot, the park just feels like Universal Studios Hollywood at night time. The removal of the scare zone in the lower lot area near Jurassic Park and the Mummy has vastly improved crowd flow in that area, but it also makes it feel less connected to the event

Universal Studios Hollywood produces fantastic looking sets and has makeup and masks only rivaled by its sister park in Orlando. This high budget Theme Park haunt looks like its worth its high budget price tag, but odd decisions with maze flow and repetitive feeling scares make the event miss the mark of being truly great. It’s still an enjoyable experience if you can afford a Front of the Line pass, but at that price point the event is more expensive than the experience received is worth.

Venue: Universal Studios Hollywood

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Dates: Select Nights September 16th – November 5th

Hours: 7PM – 2AM with early entry beginning at 5pm.

Cost: $69 -$89 depending on the night.

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